A mirror called freedom

What does freedom really mean today for us as a country? Isn’t democracy ideally about greater social and political freedom? Or is ‘neodemocracy’ the tragic moral exhaustion of our times?
Last Updated : 15 August 2021, 02:41 IST
Last Updated : 15 August 2021, 02:41 IST

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Another year of India’s fabled independence has passed by, packed into another epoch of its fatal indifference. There is a tragic irony to this stasis. Among the many virtues that come into the world with our awareness that to be human is to be free, a suicidal indifference towards life—or a sacrificial embrace of death—is not exactly the first virtue that comes to mind (if these are normative virtues at all). Among the many vices that breed inside the commonly misguided belief that our liberty gives us the license to pulverize the outnumbered and our independence truly frees us from others, a snobbish indifference towards other humans—or cruelty towards animals—is rarely ever the first vice that comes to mind.

And yet, even if they never reveal the troubling depth of their kinship, independence and indifference are strangely alike. Like independence, indifference is neither simply an ordinary virtue nor an extraordinary vice. It simply is, adhering slyly to more ostentatious pathologies of the entitled, such as snobbery. Hanging passively in the air around resentful subjects without any force or gravity of its own, indifference is like a “weed on the surface of a pond,” a 25-year old B. R. Ambedkar had prophetically written in 1916. And like independence, indifference molds itself to the misanthropic form that its bearer decides to give it. And on this pivotal political decision about form depends both the shape of our freedom and the faces of our injustice.

Not much about India’s devastating indifference is arguably new, except that this contagion has now put the poorest, most vulnerable subjects in the world’s most populous democracy in unprecedented physical and moral peril. India is exemplary in the liberal democratic world for making citizens out of people that are yet to be conferred the dignity of being barely even human. It is not the right to vote that is in immediate peril in India; it is the right to breathe—the access to oxygen—that is.

If this breathlessness seems new, it is so only in its brute, visceral physicality. India’s moral asphyxiation and its political degeneration had begun long ago. This monsoon, the republic enters the final, potentially climactic stretch of its own fateful Thirty Years War that began in December 1992 with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

A hesitant evil

Nothing cripples freedom more incurably than a society’s will to deploy its indifference towards the plight of the vulnerable, the poor, the outcaste, for calculated political ends. An indifference whose purpose is not necessarily to spill blood but to make cruelty count politically; an indifference whose purpose is not to exterminate the minority but make its pain incurable. Within this apparatus of domination, the majority does not simply obey the law; it unforgivingly enforces it upon itself and its own.

The brutalism of the neodemocratic condition cannot be grasped without this destructive mutation in the structure of the modern political majority from whose good faith democracy once drew hope. Far beyond its numbers, the majority is now a self-lacerating technique of making inequality hurt. There is a reason why fascism, friendless and cynical as it is, gnaws on the family instead, feeding on its structure of authority before it swallows kinship and love itself.

There is, of course, both dreadful repetition and catastrophic difference in the malice of the masters who see their power unconstrained by any sort of authority whatsoever. Indeed, there is a name for this punitive structure of extrajudicial repetition and difference: caste, that apparatus of tenacious belief systems and tendentious relationship to facts in which truth is merely a moral flutter, and truthfulness but a brief temptation to break the shackles of dharmic constraint and do the right thing before the most human of all temptations—the temptation to do right by those who share one’s world—is swallowed by the law.

“God knows,” to recall Hannah Arendt’s disturbing diagnosis, India might have lost that temptation to respond to evil entirely. And all this not because to not kill, to not murder, to not let neighbors go to their doom entirely would be morally difficult but because it is by deciding to not do any of these right things can they convince themselves that they have obeyed the law of dharma to its spirit and letter.

In his revolutionary interwar manifesto Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar calls this exemplary, violent conjunction between hesitation and cruelty the state of India’s “armed neutrality,” a precarious truce in hostilities that simply continues the polity’s factional, civil war by other means. It is less a war on civil society than it is a war waged by civil society upon itself in a manner that inscribes violence at the heart of civility, beyond all normative exchanges of fire between violence and counterviolence. In fact, one symptom of cruelty made political is the remorseless disabling of all resistance by counterpowers.

There might not even be two sides in this war that a society wages against itself; there might be no desire in its heart for an end or ends, only a sacrificial zeal let loose in a lethal anomie, which only confirms Ambedkar’s suspicion: caste, like death, leaves the earth parched and worldless in the very middle of its festivity. And its weapon is no more an iron rod than it is moral hesitation.

The jurisprudence of neglect

In that indeterminate zone between homicidal hesitation and murderous cruelty lies a lie, a perjury, which sometimes begins a lethal rumor that then sparks a targeted wave of vigilante violence, one that is not itself free of an institutional—or systemic—dimension. It is to Ambedkar, arguably along with James Baldwin one of the greatest moral chroniclers of the infinite human capacity to lie in the face of cruelty, that we owe the singular insight that rumor is possibly India’s most lethal weapon, one that can keep the majority tranquilized into subservience; that can have the minority eliminated and disappeared, or perhaps worse, kept frozen or fossilized in place.

There is something systemic about rumormongering in societies where people have been turned into animate vehicles of resentment and lying; that rumor, above all, is a technique or maneuver in the machine of a ceaseless autocratic attempt deployed not just to intimidate and incarcerate but to systemically immobilize a people in time by sheer indifference to their want and plight. Would political cruelty—that is, the generalized destruction of and indifference toward the very idea of the human, elevated to the principle of civic rule—be possible in a society that did not already have at its heart an active, archaic jurisprudence of neglect?

By the sheer power of the apparatus of segregation and abandonment, disgust and humor that it legitimizes and polices, caste has become fundamental to this nonpartisan, indiscriminate hostility. There is caste even in Hindutva’s seemingly caste-blind disregard of the destitute, which it directs towards Christians, Muslims, and even the upper-caste migrant poor in equal measure. Put more starkly, an active, modern, neoliberal abhorrence against the poor is grafted on an ancient, juridically sanctioned disgust of the outcaste, forging a bond that enables new techniques and technologies of neglect and abandonment to appear and fester.

How do decisive shifts in the logic of government towards a regime of cruelty come to be written off under the sign of a history of nonviolence with which a society has somehow come to be associated with, as if by a lethal lie? What is the name one gives to this historically violent nonviolence, this barbaric civility and indifference now feeding a new, destructive violence of violence, this violence that brutalizes not always by spilling blood but by inscribing neglect itself into the law?

An exemplary violence

Political cruelty is the braiding of these two poles of civic violence (or violent civility): the hostile brutalism of the majority’s self-lacerating pain, on the one hand, and the homicidal effects of its resentful, extrajudicial abandonment on those closest to itself, on the other. What I call the neodemocratic condition is this swerving, bipolar order of violence, one in which a democratically legitimate government is as likely to not participate as it is to not interfere at all.

In this theatre of cruelty, the majority is not simply a calculable number. It must be approached at once as a liquid, communal form and as a hard, political calculus; as a deployable technique, a mode of violence already so degenerate and disgraced that any form of counterviolence can only worsen it. Which it paradoxically does itself—that is, it worsens its own violence even without the provocation of a resisting counterviolence—through an active abuse of democratic norms and moral constraints, on the one hand, and, on the other, by a boundless intensification of democratic strategies put in place by the very liberal democratic order it now accuses of cowardice, hypocrisy, and alienation from the plight of the people, trading those vices with its claims of authenticity and purity, dignity even. Nothing feeds the neodemocratic majority’s delirium of power more than its utterly faithless gambit against the poor who constitute the people in the first place and in whose very name it shamelessly speaks.

The police in Hindutva’s ochlocracy—rule by mob—is meanwhile made into one more component of kar seva or religious service, its forces turned into the leading edge of a poor population pushed into war with itself, sometimes summoned to destroy mosques and dig up medieval tombs; sometimes to haplessly guard the subcontinent’s riverine sweeps of land during waterborne festivals where millions pack in and pray in the midst of a raging pandemic, their holy dips accountable to nobody but their gods; and, most often, to attack and maim their own during operations of blunt repression of the citizenry.

Absolutism without a world

No attempt to grasp the core of Hindutva’s gurgling appetite for violence can do without taking into account its calibrated hatred of the poor, Muslim or Brahmin, Christian or Dalit, uniformed or civilian: the poor whom, beyond all the known limits of psychopathology, it displays as proof of India’s plurality, their tragic attempts at survival serving as the government’s evidence of a religious populations’ ascetic prowess, their famished resilience a site of fanatically nationalistic display of a plural society’s monastic heroism in the face of brutal adversity and hunger.

It is not that Hindutva’s crimes, let alone its mendacity, are not transparent in their effects; it is that caste has required the majority to let its temptation to not steal from the poor, to not murder the minority, to not look away from that murder, dissolve in the power that comes from indifference (and is in turn manifested in it). Hindutva’s brutalism is not insurmountable; it has simply become unpunishable. Its greatest cruelty comes not from the preparedness among its converts to spill blood but from their impotent faithlessness and inaction itself, from their lack of willing anything new in the world.

Worldlessness, after all, stems not simply from the denial of one person’s right to have rights. It stems from the experience of losing entire cities to cellular degeneration: neighborhoods turned into camps, violence cut to the bone, a Muslim boy made to disappear in one state, a girl murdered by the police in another faraway one, an octogenarian dissenter left to die in a prison cell without trial, a lynch mob extinguishing the life of a Muslim man acting on rumors he had stored beef in his fridge, the judiciary becoming another cog in the government’s massive acquittal machine letting murderers get away with impunity. Neodemocracy is this tragic moral exhaustion of our times, the catastrophic combination of power and faithlessness, the suicidal conceit of a people’s cruel majesty bent on leaving an entire swathe of its own species worldless.

The author is a political theorist and intellectual historian whose work engages questions posed by inequality and violence in moral and political philosophy, epistemology, and liberalism. He is the author of Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, and the Risk of Democracy (Stanford, 2015; Navayana, 2019) and The Sovereign Void: Ambedkar’s Critique of Violence (forthcoming). This essay is drawn from a shorter book on freedom, cruelty, and the future of political faith, titled Neodemocracy. He can be reached at aishwary@stanford.edu.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this essay are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Deccan Herald or its affiliates.

Published 14 August 2021, 20:09 IST

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